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A New Recipe for America's Test Kitchen

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Most food writing is as much an act of imagination as culinary execution. For our grandmothers, cooking was a job: at its best, a vocation; at its worst, a dismal chore. For modern men and women, cooking is a lifestyle choice. If you don’t want to cook anything more complicated than spaghetti with jarred sauce, you never have to. So if you are going to put in all that effort to make something from scratch, what you produce should say something about who you are as a person. It should be creative, dramatic, sophisticated, bold or, at the very least, fetishistically traditional. Food magazines and websites understand this and cater to this desire by garnishing their articles with romantic photos and touching narratives connecting the reader to the avant-garde kitchen or time-honored tradition from which the recipes sprung.

And then there’s Cook’s Illustrated.

Cook’s Illustrated is not for people who want food writing to help them imagine a slightly better and more interesting self who amazes friends with their culinary flair. There are no photos, and aside from the widely ignored editor’s note, the only narrative in the magazine's writing is how America's Test Kitchen, the company's squad of hypomanic obsessives, conquered obstacle after obstacle to arrive at the One True Method for making a particular dish. It accepts no advertising and publishes only six times a year.

How on earth is it still in business? Profiles of founder Christopher Kimball routinely suggest that even many of the folks who helped start the magazine more than 20 years ago basically expected it to fail. Instead, it’s become a modern culinary empire that also includes cookbooks and television shows.

The secret to its success is the recipes. They’re not very inventive -- most of them cover a canon of modestly internationalized American favorites that would be welcome on any table from Peoria to Portland. But they all taste somewhere north of fine. And no matter what your level of cooking skill, it is practically impossible to screw them up.

That is no mean feat. Many is the time I have slavishly followed some famous publication’s recipe to the letter, only to end up thinking “This can’t possibly be what they meant it to taste like.” Cakes fail to rise, meat is hideously tough or practically raw, some strong ingredient takes over and banishes all other flavors from its realm.

The problem is that a recipe's writer, after all, knows just what it is supposed to look and taste like, and that tacit knowledge guides a lot of subtle action that may not show up in the recipe. They assume expertise the home cook does not have -- what exactly does it mean for custard to “coat the back of a spoon”? They’re also probably using better ingredients and better equipment than you, in your kitchen that was last renovated during the Nixon administration. And because they know what they’re doing, they can execute it faster than you can, so they may include operations that require split-second timing or frenetic multitasking, which the home cook will inevitably botch.

Cook’s Illustrated recipes never have this problem. The writers start by defining what they want out of the recipe in terms of flavor and texture, and then they go to the test kitchen and pound at it over and over and over, using only the sort of equipment and techniques and ingredients that an ordinary person can be expected to have, until they have gotten exactly what they are looking for. Then they write down exactly how to do it.

The recipes are often fussy -- the top-notch banana bread, for example, starts by having you microwave the bananas, then drain off the liquid. But the recipes are never difficult, by which I mean that they do not require you to master exotic techniques, or even know how much more than where your stove is, before you start. If you follow all the steps exactly as they are written, you will almost inevitably end up with something pretty good.

This is fundamentally a baker’s approach to cooking. As I never tire of telling my readers, the secret to baking well is to find a good recipe, then follow it exactly. People who try to substitute or alter the ingredients will come to a bad end, because baking is chemistry, and good chemistry is precise. You can be as creative as you like about your stews, stir-fries and fricassees. But if you want a good cake, you need to follow instructions.

And indeed, when you read profiles of Christopher Kimball, he sounds like a baker. The magazine could be titled “Things the Way Christopher Kimball Likes Them,” which is to say precise, foolproof and relentlessly middlebrow. He resolutely refuses to go into flights of fancy about the emotional or social importance of cooking, he derides the idea of cooking as a glamorous activity, and he evinces no interest in creativity or innovation. What he wants is to help normal people put good food on the table night after night.

I won’t say he’s “unpretentious,” though lots of writers have. But he embodies a flintily unromantic aesthetic that appeals to a lot of people. Including me, I might add: I make a lot of Cook's Illustrated recipes at home, and have rarely regretted one. And precisely because Kimball hates advertising, its equipment reviews are the best in the business.

Which raises a question: What does the America’s Test Kitchen empire look like without Christopher Kimball? This is an urgent question, because Kimball is leaving the company, apparently after his partners gave him a boss and tried to restrict his role. I don’t know what behind-the-scenes machinations ended up with Kimball announcing his departure, though often these disputes center on investors who want to expand the brand to make more money, clashing with a founder who opposes any departure from their uncompromising vision. Sometimes the founder is right and the innovators have catastrophically misunderstood what makes the brand successful; sometimes the founder is a Ford-like figure who had one great idea but has failed to adapt to the times. Either way, these separations are risky moments for a founder-driven company. As restaurateur and TV personality Ming Tsai told the Boston Globe, “The company is him. Cook’s Illustrated is him. ‘America’s Test Kitchen’ is him.”

On the other hand, I find myself wondering if maybe America’s Test Kitchen isn't reaching the end of its natural lifespan anyway. All food publications end up repeating themselves a lot, of course, but the Kimballist approach of producing the “one perfect way” to make a classic dish is especially hard to keep going decade after decade. Once you’ve made the best Boston cream pie, it gets harder and harder to come back and say “No, actually, this one’s the best.” And if your magazine is primarily aimed at people cooking the recipes rather than fantasizing about being the sort of person who cooks them, that’s a problem. Given the loyalty of the magazine’s subscriber base -- reportedly, about three-quarters renew every year -- it doesn’t have the same margin for repetition that an ordinary food magazine does when it publishes some modest tweak on an old favorite.

The company's test kitchen has already produced tasty, idiot-proof versions of almost any American favorite you can name, and a number you’ve never heard of. It has probably produced versions for the slow cooker and the pressure cooker, too, and one that’s been cut down to feed two people, or one that you can make on the stove-top in under 30 minutes for those busy weeknights. I still get the magazine, of course, but these days, I’m far more likely to use one of its very fine cookbooks (I especially recommend the slow-cooker books and the omnibus, where you will find the abovementioned recipe for the best banana bread you’ve ever eaten). And I suspect that I’m not alone.

In other words, I find Cook's Illustrated more useful as a library of old favorites than a source of new ideas. This is, as you might say, baked into Kimball’s approach. And perhaps that’s the problem that the investors who pushed him out are trying to solve. But if so, that will leave them with an even bigger problem: The limits of Kimball’s no-nonsense approach are also the benefits. If America's Test Kitchen weren’t so relentlessly focused on finding the one best way, it would have had a lot more leeway to expand what it does. But whatever that would be, I probably wouldn’t be very interested in it.

  1. If you’ve ever wondered, the answer is that when you dip a spoon into the custard, you should be able to draw a line down the middle with your finger and have the line stay, rather than the custard running to fill in the empty space.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net